Modern Reformed Christians may be surprised to hear in Belgic Confession, Article 24 that faith regenerates. Similarly, John Calvin’s third chapter of Book III of the Institutes of the Christian Religion is also called “Regeneration by Faith.” Doesn’t regeneration precede faith? The statement in the Belgic Confession might even sound Arminian to some. That is one reason that the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) changed Article 26 to read that we are “sanctified by faith” instead of “regenerated by faith.”1
The way to understand this language is to realize that many of the sixteenth century Reformed theologians used the word “regeneration” to refer to the whole process of the elimination of sin from our soul and body. The Latin word can mean simply “renewal,” which is obviously applicable to the whole process of the transformation of the Christian.
Today we usually speak differently. Later theologians used the word “regeneration” to refer to the initial implantation of new life in the elect and “sanctification” to refer to the process of removing sin throughout our lives. If we take the meaning of the word “regeneration” as “reborn,” the later usage of the word seems to be more accurate. We are only born once. On the other hand, the older usage still has some insight for us, as we can gather from a short doctrinal handbook written by Amandus Polanus.
Before we proceed to discuss Polanus’s ideas on sanctification, we should say a brief word about his life. Amandus Polanus was born in the East German city of Polansdorf (hence, Polanus) in December 1561. He studied under a Melanchthonian Lutheran at Breslau and became a low Lutheran, particularly through his study of Romans 9. His major objection to Lutheranism had to do with the doctrine of election. He later wrote in Latin A Treatise on Predestination, which was translated into English in 1597, defending this doctrine he had come to believe. Polanus joined the Reformed Church when he went to Basle, Switzerland, in 1583 and then on to Geneva where he studied under Beza whom he called “the Irenaeus of that century.” In 1590, he returned to Basle and received his doctorate.
In 1596, Polanus became professor of Old Testament at Basle. He gained considerable fame through a new translation of the Bible. One of his major works was Partiones Theologicae or Theological Distinctions.2 This work was translated into English along with some of his other writings and published in London in 1597 under the name The Substance of the Christian Religion. He was one of the most famous theologians in the age just after the Reformation.
Regeneration by Faith
In Polanus’s Theological Distinctions, we can see some of the advantage of using the word “regeneration” for sanctification. By using the word “regeneration” for the whole process, the connection between what we call “regeneration,” “sanctification,” and “glorification” is made clear. All three of these words refer to the removal of sin from our nature by a cleansing work of the Holy Spirit and an implantation (placing of new characteristics or habits) of grace within us.3
Thus, regeneration is the initiation of the process of transformation. Sanctification is the continuation of that process throughout our lives on earth. Glorification is the completion of that process.
We must understand, then, that the initiation of the transformation of our nature is temporally prior to justification. We do not believe in Christ until there is a transformation of our nature to enable us to repent and believe. This is the commencement of a new life within us, and we then begin to put this new life into action by faith and repentance, whereupon we are justified.
It is of the utmost importance, however, to continually affirm that we are not justified (declared to be righteous) on account of the implanting of new characteristics within us. This could not be the case because, first, the new characteristics within us (faith, hope, etc.) cannot make up for past failures to keep the law (which would render us perpetually unrighteous in ourselves), and, second, there is still the presence of sin within us, so that no act or characteristic within us is in utter or complete conformity with the law.
It seems that some, however, have confused the early Reformed use of the word regeneration with a modern denial of the concept of an ordo salutis (order of salvation). In fact, in Polanus (as one example), there is a clear understanding that this renovation or regeneration has stages of initiation, progression, and consummation.4
Polanus also divides regeneration into that of the soul and that of the body. The regeneration of our soul consists in illumination and repentance (resipiscentia).5 As the soul has two faculties (intellect and will), so regeneration heals these two parts. Illumination heals the intellect, and repentance heals the will.
In discussing the second part, repentance, he notes that it is a renovation of the will. This renovation of the will is something that it is totally a gift of God: “[Repentance] does not proceed from our free will, for that was lost after the fall, and there is nothing tending towards the good and especially towards eternal salvation (Gen. 6:5), but it is the gift of God.”6 Thus, within regeneration (as Polanus defines it), there is an initial aspect that enables us to move toward saving good (which includes the exercise of faith), and this is solely a gift of God.
Polanus was able to bring together and show the progression of the three stages of transformation by this one word regeneration or renewal. At the same time, Polanus also believed that an initial transformation of the will was necessary in order for someone to be able to believe. The phrase “regeneration by faith” is not used in an Arminian sense.
The Mechanics of Sanctification
Polanus proceeds from this discussion to describe the mechanics of repentance. He notes that there are two parts of this renewal: mortification and vivication, that is, putting to death the old man and bringing to life the new man (Rom. 6:4- 6, Col. 3:5-10, Rom. 8:13).
Mortification consists in an acknowledgment, confession, and hatred of sin along with a true grief over sin (Is. 66:2, 2 Cor. 7:11, 2 Kings 22:19).7
Vivification is also called our resurrection with Christ. It consists of two parts: the consolation of the conscience and government by the Spirit.
The second aspect of our vivification, the government by the Spirit, is something that seems to be commonly understood. This occurs when God leads us and enables us by His Holy Spirit to walk in the way of His commandments
It is particularly interesting, however, that Polanus places consolation or assurance as part of living a new life in Christ. It is “the true joy in God of the humbled conscience of the believer after having received remission of sins through Christ by faith (Ps. 51:10, 14; Rom. 5:1; Is. 57:15–18; 61:1; 49:13).”8 Thus, for Polanus, growing as a Christian means having a greater and greater joy over the justification that we possess in Christ.
The application that we can draw from his discussion is the high importance of the preaching of the law and the Gospel for our sanctification. This does not mean what many people think. It is more often thought that sanctification preaching is Gospel-law, that is, “You are forgiven, now obey God’s law out of gratitude.” This, of course, is part of sanctification preaching.
However, what Polanus’s definition gives us is an understanding that “sanctification preaching” is also law-Gospel, that is, “You have broken the law, and you are forgiven only on account of Christ’s righteousness.” This is often thought to be what we preach to those who are outside the Church or unconverted within the Church. Of course, this is what we preach to them, but it is also primarily what we preach to the converted.
Think back to Polanus’ definition of repentance. If our growth in repentance consists primarily in acknowledgment, confession, and humbling ourselves over our sins, then the law must be preached in its full power in order to produce those effects. Secondly, if we understand that becoming a new man in Christ is about joy over what we have received, then the Gospel must also be preached in all its sweetness and consolation (consolatio, the word Polanus used).
Finally, we understand that there is not a huge chasm between the way we preach to believers and unbelievers. In both cases, the central message is, “You are sinner, and your only hope is Jesus Christ.” Understanding and receiving this message is how we become Christians, and it is how we grow as Christians.
This is also confirmed in the Heidelberg Catechism. There it says that all our obedience, even as Christians, is only a small beginning of what is required. The logical question is,
Q. Why, then, will God have the Ten Commandments preached so strictly, since in this life no one can keep them?
A. First, that all our life long we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so become the more earnest in seeking remission of sins and the righteousness Christ; second, that we may constantly endeavor, and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after the image of God, till after this life we arrive at the goal of perfection (Q/A. 115).
All along the way to heavenly glory, we will continually be led to humble ourselves over our past and present sins. This will lead us more and more to see our standing before God as founded completely on Christ’s blood and righteousness. Even in glorification, the song of the redeemed will be, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12, NKJV).
1 The Three Forms of Unity (Sioux Falls, SD: Pine Hill Press), 48.
2 Amandus Polanus, Partitiones Theologicae (London, 1591).
3 Ibid., 58-60.
Rev. J. Wesley White is the Pastor of the New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Spearfish, South Dakota.